Three years ago, Newport in South Wales became the epicentre of pop-cultural reference points when a spoof of Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’flew around the world. The lovingly created video for Newport State of Mind, devised and filmed by London director MJ Delaney and featuring actors Alex Warren and Terema Wainwright, had new lyrics with a Newport theme and was filmed in locations around the city.
It may have painted Newport with a rather bleak, black and white palette, but it was a tender, funny portrait of a city that said: “This is where we live, deal with it.” It was also a grim reminder of many down-at-heel towns and cities across the UK.
Looking back to those halcyon days wearing hazy nostalgia goggles, Newport should perhaps have taken the lyrics more seriously: “Newport, concrete jungle nothing in order, not far from the border.” It’s the reality facing Newport now following devastating cuts. Over the past year, a-n has reported at length the closure of Newport Art Gallery’s temporary exhibitions programme, alongside the proposed demolition of Newport’s Chartist Uprising Mural.
If that wasn’t gloomy enough, the Newport-based University of South Wales’ BA Fine Art programme has now sadly come to an end, leaving Newport with not much else but, in the words of the song, ‘Chips, cheese, curry makes you feel brand new, washed down with a Special Brew.’
Artist Neil McNally included the video in his curated exhibition The Instutute of Mental Health is Burning at Newport Art Gallery back in 2012, and has also been an energetic campaigner against the cuts. McNally was also one of the tutors teaching on the final days at the University, where despite the doom and gloom, the students have rallied to produce departure, their – and the University’s – final degree show.
Under the tutorship of McNally, Andreas Ruthi, Simon Fenoulhet, Helen Sear and Kathryn Ashill, Newport’s students have earned a fearsome reputation. Full of bravado, many a private view in South Wales and beyond has seen them out in full force, often affecting an Eastern European accent and carrying off a particular glamour seen in working-class towns. Indeed, McNally describes the students and the course at Newport as proudly working class.
Positive energy, negative context
Kathryn Ashill mentions that the students’ energy in part stems from the negative context that surrounds culture in Newport. She proudly says: “The final BA Fine Art group from Newport are a committed group who are eager to become part of a wider contemporary dialogue. This has been galvanised by their experience of having their department axed and having the responsibility of going out with a bang. They did not let us down and presented strong ideas through a variety of mediums. They even served caviar!”
Indeed they did, and a whole lot more. Gone are the days of limp sandwiches and cartons of wine; Wales hasn’t seen such a spread since Newport proudly hosted the 2010 Ryder Cup as its arts infrastructure was crumbling.
The quality of the work in the show may vary, as is usual for any degree show, but it has been done with gusto, evidenced by some of the group’s ringleaders. The graduating students are nothing but passionate. Rachael Jayne says: “The whole idea of the fine arts course closing is, to put it bluntly, a fucking travesty; it deprives society and culture in Newport and South Wales.”
Stephen Inkpen believes that “the course has been cut for political reasons, not educational ones” and is endemic of “typical cultural genocide.” Lauren Jones adds: “The cultural scene in Newport has been sucked dry by the thirsty vampires also known as the Welsh government and Newport Council.”
It’s a surreal state of affairs, with actor Michael Sheen amongst those lending their support to petitions and demonstrations in favour of retaining Newport’s gallery programme. It was only back in March that Newport Council Cabinet member for leisure and culture, Councillor Debbie Wilcox, said in support of the gallery’s 125th anniversary: “Newport has so much history and an interesting story to tell. The museum and art gallery has helped to display historical objects and presented temporary exhibitions and displays for a number of years. I would urge residents to help the museum and art gallery celebrate its 125th birthday…”
Cardiff-based arts writer, Emma Geliot, recently wrote on her blog about the kind of creative Wales she hopes for: “I’d like to see a Wales where art is valued by everyone, especially politicians. And if the politicians in Newport don’t get their cultural act together soon, we’ll be looking at an artistic void on the map of Wales, which no amount of swanky new shops will fill.”
With no fine art course, no historic monuments, no art gallery, Newport is indeed becoming a concrete jungle with nothing in order, not far from the border.
depARTure continues until 14 June, 10am-5pm, University of South Wales, Caerleon Campus, Lodge Road, Newport.